2014 alumnus, Sophia Kayafas, reflects on time spent at WLU and Nutting Gallery experience

“Peter, Why did you Doubt?” Oil on Linen, 2019

Each individual questions their role in the world and what they should do with the life they’ve been given. How are you supposed to choose a financially stable career you will enjoy while simultaneously wondering the role of your life on this earth? WLU alumnus Sophia Kayafas asked herself similar questions at different points in her life, but one aspect has always remained the same — art is the unifying outlet in her life. Kayafas has done a lot of soul searching since her graduation from the university, but always remembers how her time at West Liberty helped shape her into the person she is today.

Kayafas graduated from WLU in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Studio Art and Public Relations. According to Kayafas’s website, she was born in Wheeling, W. Va., but moved to N.Y. — where she currently lives — about seven years ago to “complete a masters in fellowship at the New York Academy of Art.” She graduated from the New York Academy of Art in 2016 with a Master of Fine Art in painting. Currently, she teaches at two schools including Pratt University in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Hudson County Community College in N.J.

Not only has Kayafas made a way for herself as an artist, but also as a musician and media personality. WLU’s Dean for the College of Arts and Communication, Dr. Matthew Harder, reported in the college of arts and communications monthly newsletter [March 5 issue] about Kayafas co-hosting a television show for PBS. The specific show Kayafas was featured in was titled, Flow State: North Brooklyn Artists; essentially, the show discusses what it was like to be an artist in north Brooklyn during the summer of 2020. In addition to co-hosting a television show, Kayafas is also a co-host for the Art Grind Podcast. According to the newsletter written by Harder, this podcast directly linked Kayafas to her involvement with PBS.

In October 2020, Kayafas made her way back to the Hilltop through her artwork which was featured in the Nutting Gallery in the show “How to See Again”. Allegedly, Brian Fencl, professor of art at WLU, had asked Kayafas if she would be willing to send him some of her work to be featured in a show sometime before October. The entire gallery was filled with Kayafas’s drawings, which she found particularly interesting considering she is a painter. “It just felt very natural to do. Fencl asked if I would do it and I said of course I would. I didn’t know what to send him to show at first,” said Kayafas. She apparently had done nearly 100 drawings in the past year prior to Fencl asking her to be featured in the Nutting Gallery. Putting nearly 100 drawings out on the floor, she began asking herself what each drawing had in common and “what’s the story here”? “It ended up being an autobiographical kind of investigation of spirituality and process concerning my life basically, and the different things going on in my life. I just thought you know, why not? There’s humor here, there’s pain, there’s sorrow, there is also hope and light and joy in all of these drawings.” According to Kayafas, she sent the drawings she felt were the most interesting; then, Fencl made further distinctions about what hung at the gallery. “I sent him a lot more than what he put up, which was kind of cool,” said Kayafas. Going back to Kayafas being more of a painter than a sketcher, she said a lot of the sketches Fencl showed, “the ones that I [Kayafas] thought were powerful will become paintings if they haven’t already.”

Kayafas has accomplished much in her professional career upon graduating from West Liberty; however, she still looks back on the professors and experiences of WLU that helped shape her into the artist she is today.

To start, her degree itself was a bit of an undertaking as the university did not offer her desired degree. “I was the only person I knew that was studying studio art. It wasn’t even a major. I had to create my own major (an interdisciplinary). I could only get the studio art aspect or element of my degree if I combined it with something else; so, I combined it with public relations. It seemed like a good fit for me because I’m a good communicator and I can write well. I understand some things about the public and how art relates to the public.”

Kayafas claimed she had an amazing time at WLU, and spent a lot of time in the fine arts building on campus. “If I was going to say like my memories of West Liberty it’s in the FAB (you know the Fine Arts building) until three or four in the morning with friends, playing music, drawing, laughing and starting so many different projects,” shared Kayafas.

Bringing her “own personal agenda” to every assignment, she said she took all of her classes at WLU very seriously. “I think that’s why I learned how to paint and draw in such an idiosyncratic way, because the technique was not being forced down my throat at West Liberty,” Kayafas explained.

Fencl has had a significant impact on Kayafas who said he “taught her a lot” and she “thinks of him often.”

Sharing how much respect and admiration she has for Fencl, Kayafas said, “He knew what art meant to him so deeply that it provided a construct for me to develop what art meant to me without telling me what it meant. That’s one thing he never would do [explain what art meant] and I wanted him to tell me!” Constantly busy, Kayafas so badly wanted Fencl to explain if she was doing projects “right” or if they were “good”. However, Fencl would never say to her “yes that is art or no that isn’t art.” Kayafas shared, “He would guide me here and there by giving me like little tidbits of information. ‘You know the old master’s would draw like this. But by no means does that mean that that’s how you have to draw — but this is how they used to draw like that’. And he’d show me. I think that was a really sacred trust. I think there is a sacred trust between a teacher and a student, especially, in the arts. The person [teacher] becomes kind of a guide through the uncertainty that is dispassionate. They don’t put their will on you, and I think that’s probably the most valuable thing that he [Fencl] gave me.”

Fencl himself grew a bond with Kayafas, which he says has impacted his life both as an artist and a teacher. “I feel really blessed to know her and to have been able to help guide her while she was at WLU. She is incredibly gifted and working with her made me a better teacher, artist and person. She works harder than everyone around her, is humble and excited about what others are doing. This elevated the work of her peers and it made for a really fun time while she was here.” In addition, Fencl claims Kayafas won a variety of national awards as a student and said, “It was obvious early on that she was special.”

Another professor Kayafas mentioned was Bob Villamagna. Villamagna is now retired, but he taught at the university as a professor of art for nearly 20 years. “He knew who he was. He embraced his unique personality. I loved his sculpture class,” Kayafas said.

Harder wrote in the March arts and communication newsletter, “Kayafas is the unofficial portrait painter of past presidents of West Liberty.” Before she graduated, she left her mark on the hilltop by completing a portrait painting of former president Clyde Campbell, which hangs in Campbell Hall. Recently, she finished a portrait of Dr. Stephen Greiner as a retirement gift to him from the WLU foundation, according to Harder.

After years of degree work, professional work and self-exploration, Kayafas has found what art means to her. “I think… I think art to me at this point in my life — it means a pursuit of unity with myself and God. It’s very personal and it’s irrational, but it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s [art] undeniably necessary in my life I don’t even question that,” she said.

To view Kayafas paintings, drawings, podcasts and social media, please visit her personal website at sophiakayafas.com. Any questions about this article or the contents herein should be directed to Annalise Murphy at [email protected].
If interested in viewing the interview Fencl did with Kayafas, it is available to be viewed on Topper Station.